Kiwi Mexican wave gathers pace

22:08, Nov 12 2012

Auckland has been flooded by a Mexican wave as more and more Kiwis spice up their food choices and the trend could soon spread around the rest of New Zealand.

A number of Mexican chain outlets have opened in the past year in Auckland and are looking to expand in other cities and across the Tasman as custom builds.

Restaurant Association of New Zealand CEO Marisa Bidois said the flexibility of the Mexican menu, interesting flavours and healthy options for diners had helped increase growth in this space.

"The fast casual boom is also certainly part of the equation – Mexican concepts fit well into the fast casual model," she said.

"Consumers enjoy an authentic, ethnic, dining experience and spicier, more flavourful foods, so Mexican concepts and menu items are on trend in a number of ways right now."

While Bidois had no solid figures as to what percentage of Auckland eateries were Mexican, the association's 2012 hospitality report shows there was $6.54 million in annual sales for the national restaurant industry - $2.31m of which was spent in Auckland alone.

Existing Mexican food operators aren't too worried, saying competition will only help expand the category.

"It's still a new segment. It's a category of food that people just haven't had here," said Jeff Moss, owner of one of the new chains, the Original California Burrito Company. "It's a bit like Chinese cuisine was like 25 years ago."

Moss opened his first store 15 months ago, now has six in Auckland with another about to open, and one in Hamilton. The chain also opened its first store in Bondi, Sydney last month.

His ambitious expansion plans include opening around 15 stores in the next year, mostly in Auckland but also targeting Palmerston North, Wellington, Christchurch, Queenstown and Dunedin. The first franchised store will open in Ellerslie in February. He wants to build up to 40 to 50 stores throughout New Zealand within just 3 years.

The Mexican Cafe opposite SkyTower is the city's oldest Mexican joint, opened by Bruce Glover 29 years ago. General manager Jeff Langford and Glover worked together in Mexican food through the Cafe Pacifico restaurant group in Europe in the early 80s.

"We're not just selling Mexican food, but ambience," Langford said. "We've got customers who have been coming here for 20 years and one family spanning three generations."

Langford said the growth in operators reflects the fact the food appeals to all age groups.

'The market's going to sort itself out and the newcomers will only stimulate the market," he said. "There's always going to be enough room. Our longevity has been about consistency."

Another player Mexicali Fresh introduced what it claims to be the most authentic Mexican food in 2005. Owner Conor Kerlin, of Californian stock where Mexican food is a way of life, said all it found when the family came scouting in 2004 was the Mexican Cafe.

His family brought in an assembly line quick service restaurant format (similar to Subway) and waited for the business to roll in the door. It trickled. The first person to walk in asked what a burrito was. Kiwis needed more education and TV, the internet and travel helped. "About three or four years ago people started to understand," Kerlin said. "We thought it would happen sooner, maybe it was the GFC (global financial crisis)."

The family-owned business which started at Princes Wharf in downtown Auckland, has recently opened a store on K' Road in the city, not far from the latest California Burrito shop. Mexicali now has four restaurants and wants to add another 4 to 5 in the next year under franchisees, ultimately hitting around 20 nationwide.

Kerlin says when he entered the market was a perfect time to start the "Mexican evolution".

"We were ahead of our time in a way." Kerlin said. "Any Joe Schmo can open a restaurant but it takes focus to deliver consistency and quality at each restaurant. Mexican food is part of our bloodline."

Mexico, a restaurant/bar which has become popular since opening at Britomart in downtown Auckland in February, extended to Takapuna on the North Shore in August

Part-owner Nick McCaw said Auckland had been "under-served" in this area for a long time.

"It's just catching up with a whole range of international food types," McCaw said.

He wants to open another store in Auckland and is about to open a Mexico store in Sydney.

"It's become very popular because it's fresh, it's fun and, most important, it's affordable," he said. "We're getting people coming back week after week."

He also thought competition was healthy because it "keeps everyone sharp".

"The good get better and the worst drop off."

One of the more unusual new entrants is MexiKai, a pimped-out old Bedford ambulance which has taken it products to the masses for a year operating out of the Elliott Street carpark each day in downtown Auckland. Co-owner Simon Temple said the food's popularity came down to a well-travelled population, he said.

"We've got a lot of people who have been to different countries and experienced different cultures and food and they're willing to give it a try," Temple said.

Meanwhile, Aussie outlets Mad Mex and Guzman Y Gomez are rumoured to be looking at setting up in New Zealand while Taco Bell has been on the radar through NZX-listed Restaurant Brands which has the Pizza Hut, KFC, Starbucks and Carl's Jr brands.

While many food businesses were still finding the trading environment tough, the association's Bidois there has been an increase in the number of restaurants opening.

"In the end the market will dictate who stays and who goes."